“The Birth of a Nation”
To say that Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is not a thing of passion would be a lie. Many first-time filmmakers’ efforts are drenched in this quality. They are young, enthusiastic, and full-heartedly committed to their projects. You can see Parker’s enthusiasm in nearly every frame. His performance is that of a future star and he packs more ambition into the first minutes than many of today’s blockbusters contain in their entire running times. The passion is all there, it is quite obvious, but where is the craft?
The Birth of a Nation, ironically stealing its name from D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking, but undeniably racist KKK-glorifying epic, depicts the story of Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher who orchestrated a slave rebellion in hopes of leading his people to freedom. If this is the first you have heard of Turner, don’t feel bad. Turner’s methods, which consisted of moving from plantation to plantation brutally murdering the white residents, children included, were so violent and gruesome that many history classes gloss over the topic. After witnessing this film, it is not surprising, as it shows us every bloody detail, but to what end?
It is sufficient to say that Parker’s performance is the highlight of the film. Developing a character filling to the brim with extreme, crushing anger is not an easy task, but Parker does it with unforgiving honesty and intense deliverance. His performance is all in the eyes, his sight becoming increasingly consumed by the gruesomeness and death all around him until they roll over white with the thirst for revenge. To give him an Oscar nod for his performance would be a good call, but to reward any other aspects of his film would be a bit much.
For taking on such a rough and complex topic, this is a very simple, single-minded film. Aside from the layered performance from Parker, there is hardly any substance within this piece, which many have stated to be a revolutionary achievement. The literary tools used by the script and the images Parker uses as a director are lazy and manipulative. Parker desperately wants the audience to feel specific emotions during specific scenes and he makes damn sure they feel it.
With the use of aggressively religious and metaphorical visuals and plot elements, it is difficult to extend yourself into the bodies of the characters. It is not difficult to develop sympathy for someone as persecuted as Parker’s character, but Parker feels as if it is an impossible task that can only be accomplished with disingenuous allegories and melodrama. It is true that Turner was plagued by visions and he felt that he was a communicative medium for God, but it is how the visions are executed and how they are placed that doesn’t do much good for the viewer.
Much of the violence is also questionable as it is mostly only used as further motivation for Turner to rebel. There are multiple scenes depicting the sexual assault of black women by white slave-owners, which was a very real and quite common issue back then, and they are all shown for one purpose which is to allow their black partners to mourn over them. The abuse is not about the women, but about the men and their reaction to it.
This is just one example of the lack of creativity put into the script and storytelling. Parker is a far better film actor than he is a filmmaker. His direction is tedious and his writing is aggressively single-minded. He tells this story for the sole purpose of getting Nat Turner from one spiritual awakening to the next until his inevitable rebellion. There is even an interesting relationship that begins to blossom between Turner and the owner of the plantation which he works on (played excellently by the underrated Armie Hammer), but this is scrapped for more lurid, shocking scenes to develop Turner’s motivations.
There is much to admire in Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. The performances are stellar, especially Parker’s, the cinematography is gorgeous, perfectly encapsulating the time period, and the score is moving; however, there is little beyond that first layer. Underneath the film’s outer beauty is nothing more than a man’s single-minded tale of revenge so full of hate and agony that, at a point, it becomes numbing. It is a shame too, because Parker adorns his frames with such gusto.
2 out of 5